Caracas: The final stretch of Venezuela's race to replace Hugo Chavez coincides with a delicate anniversary for the opposition: 11 years since a brief coup against the late leftist leader.
Acting President Nicolas Maduro used it as a foil against opposition rival Henrique Capriles at a campaign rally on Monday, accusing him of being "the same" as coup leader Pedro Carmona.
"They won't return!" the crowd chanted, recalling the events of April 11-13, 2002, when the head of the chamber of commerce was briefly installed as president until loyal troops brought Chavez, the elected leader, back to power.
For 14 years, Chavez trounced his rivals at the ballot box, winning his last election in October against Capriles.
The opposition says Chavez unfairly used state funds and flooded the airwaves with mandatory broadcasts to dominate election campaigns while intimidating opponents. Maduro, it says, is using the same tactics ahead of Sunday's election.
"We have proven our commitment to democracy and I believe that every day, the government shows it is the one that does not respect the rules of democracy," Tomas Guanipa, secretary general of Capriles' Justice First party, told AFP.
"Despite errors that may have been committed by other actors, the leadership of the current opposition is a leadership that has committed not only to the electoral path but to the strengthening of democracy," he said.
While it accuses the government of foul play, the short-lived coup has been a rallying point for Chavistas for the past decade, allowing Chavez, and now Maduro, to convince supporters that a vote for the opposition would be a vote for "fascists."
"Since 2002, the opposition has been unable to shake the image of being 'golpista,'" George Ciccariello-Maher, author of "We Created Chavez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution," told AFP, using the Spanish word for coup leader.
"This is a difficulty that Capriles also has," said the political science professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Capriles, whose politics are centrist and has said he would maintain many of Chavez's popular social programs, has denied any link to the coup.
He was charged with failing to stop a violent protest against the Cuban embassy when he was mayor of the Baruta municipality at the time, but he was acquitted, serving four months in jail while awaiting trial. Still, state-run television is airing a documentary about the Cuban embassy siege this week that questions Capriles' role in the protests.
The 40-year-old governor is now the fresh face of the opposition, an avowed democrat who quickly conceded defeat when Chavez defeated him by 11 points in the October 7 election.
Despite the loss, Capriles gave the opposition its best score ever against Chavez, with 44 percent of the vote.
The energetic opposition leader has held huge rallies in this abbreviated campaign, attracting hundreds of thousands of people in Caracas on Sunday.
But Maduro has a double-digit lead in opinion polls, riding a wave of sympathy since Chavez lost his battle with cancer on March 5.
Chavez's handpicked successor claimed last week that the opposition was trying to recruit military officers to support them in a refusal to recognize the April 14 election if he wins. The opposition countered that the government was using the military to mobilize voters.
The National Electoral Council, at the request of the Maduro campaign, prepared a document for candidates to sign on Tuesday in which they will pledge they to recognize the election result. Capriles and Chavez signed a similar vow last year.
Supporters of both candidates debated the legacies of the opposition and Chavismo in eastern Caracas, a wealthy neighborhood seen as a Capriles bastion.
Dario Ramirez, a 27-year-old Capriles campaign worker, admitted that the opposition had done "bad things" in the past but that he was more interested in talking about the future.
"A country that lives in the past all the time doesn't move forward," he told AFP.
Earlier, Ramirez had debated Maduro supporters under a red tent of the Chavista campaign manned by government employees, asking why the government was unable to reduce violent crime in the past 14 years.
Yill Espinoza, a 40-year-old government employee, countered the two parties that dominated Venezuelan politics for 40 years before Chavez came around had armed criminals and imposed "savage capitalism."
Dozens of people gathered around the tent to listen to the debate.
When another Chavista took the microphone and rambled too long about the coup and other supposed opposition ills, the crowd shouted him down, prompting the man to say "that's how fascists are, violent!"